Shaker Style and Making
Thursday 22 July 2010
John Bullar looks at some of traditional Shaker making techniques and applies them to turn knobs and demonstrate how a tripod table could be made today
Shakers pre-empted the Modernist movement by a more than a century with their passion for functional efficiency, producing clean lines using the simple actions of plain tools and an absence of applied decoration.
Work for the Shakers was a form of prayer. Their furniture, inspired by spirituality and dedication to craft, was made simply and honestly for everyday use. There was certainly no self-conscious effort to produce masterpieces or furniture with art pretensions as found in parts of Europe at the time. Shakers had an uncompromising insistence on quality, although not necessarily in the ways we interpret this today, as I will attempt to explain.
While it is not necessary to share Shakers philosophy in order to design and make furniture in their style, it certainly helps to be aware of it.
The layout of Shaker designs often reflected the way they lived and worked in communities. For example, drawers were frequently placed on the sides or backs of chests and cabinets where people would huddle together in the light for sewing work or reading.
Lop-sidedness was quite acceptable, flaps on tables being on one side only where purpose dictated, rather than both to satisfy an aesthetic of symmetry. This allowed the table to be stood in a corner without restricting its function.
Where Shaker drawings existed these were simple outlines with external dimensions, leaving the construction techniques to the skill of the maker. Rods and templates would be used for the occasional curves but for carcass work the maker recorded lengths using a story stick. This is a marked baton like a ruler but as long as the largest component in a frame. It is subdivided into all the other dimensions used in making that piece of furniture.
The simple processes of marking out and cutting wood will often define the final form taken by a component. For example, simple curves to form arcs or sections of a circle of any diameter can be marked out with a pencil string pulled tight against a map pin marking the centre. The imprecise saw kerf left by a bow-saw is then easily adapted using a compass plane, which is capable of fairing rough-sawn components to true radiused curved edges.
While work was not signed or marked to attribute it to an individual designer or maker, style differences are evident between the communities.
Unlike the early English Arts and Crafts movement which took influences from them, the Shakers did not revere the handwork of the maker in itself as a subject for display. Generally joints were concealed but where construction details were exposed there was no showmanship in the joinery.
Perhaps surprisingly there does not seem to have been any prejudice against the use of machine tools when these became available. Working in large communal groups, the Shakers were better able to afford investment in machines than a lone furniture maker would be and their later work shows circular-saw marks.
Before central heating was widely used, the moisture content of thinner pieces of wood tended to follow the seasonal humidity and so backs and panels could be rigidly fixed.
Nail jointing was commonly used by Shakers for unstressed joints such as on backs and the tops and sides of small pieces where these met the functional requirement. Copper nails were popular to avoid rust, as were copper rivets, most notably used to strap thin laths into bentwood boxes.
Whereas today many makers would be humiliated if their carefully framed door panels developed cracks, then most people took a less precious attitude to the effects of nature. Provided they did not affect the strength or function, minor splits in panels were regarded as an aspect of the material so panels would be tightly pinned in place.
Woods and finishes
The Shakers were blessed with access to wide pieces of old woods from the giant trees such as oak, pine and maple felled in the American natural forests. They sawed these massive trunks into full-width boards where possible, providing unbroken large-scale figuring and a beauty which is hard to emulate with a series of edge-jointed boards.
When making Shaker-style furniture nowadays, ideally we need to seek out full-width boards. However, sustainable timber comes from younger trees with narrower trunks, so on larger furniture where that is not practical you need to spend extra time matching the figuring between narrow boards so it blends when they are jointed.
Finishes were often simply waxed to repel moisture and dirt or else painted. Milk paint was most commonly used. Made from casein, the protein extracted from milk and mixed with powdered limestone, milk paint is available from specialist suppliers or can be simulated by partially blending two similar shades of emulsion paint.
Drawers of all shapes and sizes, dictated by their contents, pull-out trays and lopers to support folding dropleaf tabletops and cabinet fronts, were all made and fitted with care to an accuracy of a fraction of a millimetre so they would move smoothly. When working out internal depth of drawers you need to allow for the base and runners, plus a small clearance.
Dovetailing was always used for drawers and other end-grain corners that might be subject to racking. In making Shaker-style furniture nowadays it is best to avoid making the fine pins associated with modern hand-cut dovetails and stick to balanced pin and tail widths.
Flat panels rather than fielded ones in square-edged frames are a distinctive feature of the Shaker style. Instead of the more elaborate moulded frame used to disguise the groove in European furniture, the shakers would use a scratch stock to cut a simple quirk bead around the inner edge of a frame.
Throughput was essential in making the furniture affordable to ordinary Americans and saw marks would sometimes be left on internal faces and edges of carcasses. Perhaps this sounds crude to modern makers, but the work was carefully done and judging from the durability and effectiveness of well-used Shaker furniture, they got it right.
There was little applied decoration, other than occasional use of sawn veneers. Some simple enhancement was allowed where it improved the visual elegance of the piece, tapered legs and arched rails for example. Mechanisms incorporated into cabinet designs were well liked by the Shakers.
One of the distinctive features of Shaker drawers and doors is the pulls or knobs which, being turned in the same workshop from native woods in natural colours, have a simple harmony with the rest of the piece.
If you have access to a lathe it is a practical proposition to turn a set of matching handles for modern Shaker-style drawers and doors. American walnut or fruitwoods such as cherry or apple are ideal for making authentic detailed drawer pulls.
Start by sketching the outline shape to suitable dimensions. Small doors and drawers need small knobs and handles both to look proportionate and to encourage light handling. Try drawing some variations on the theme before making a set of one design
The example I made here was a set a drawer pulls in walnut to contrast with a rippled maple chest. I chose a traditional domed mushroom top with a trumpet-shaped profile on the stem.
I started by sawing a densely grained piece of black walnut slightly oversize to the dimensions of the sketch, then marked the centres and cut into the end grain with a plug cutter on the drill press.
Sawing off a ring of waste revealed a cylindrical stem ready to be clamped in the chuck of a lathe.
For most of the turning I supported the far end with a tailstock so the profile of the knob could be turned between centres. Periodically I stopped the lathe and checked dimensions against the sketch before the tailstock was backed off and the end turned to a domed mushroom shape.
Small Shaker knobs like these can be pressed and glued in place. To make a good fit the shaft is clamped in a vice and compressed half a dozen times, rotating a few degrees between each squeeze. This shrinks the wood, which swells again when it absorbs water from the glue.
Larger Shaker knobs would have a thread cut onto the wooden shaft and a corresponding thread tapped into the receiving hole in the drawer front or door frame.
Principles of round stand tripod tables
Shakers produced large numbers of little tripod tables described as round stands. Designed primarily for carrying candlesticks, many were needed in communal dwellings and the local farming family homes for which they were sold.
A tall table needs three feet if it is going to stand steady on an uneven stone or boarded floor and these feet must be keyed into a tall support column.
Dovetail housing slots mate with keys hand-sawn at the tops of legs. Slots and keys were slightly tapered in both directions, a challenge because these joints can be tricky to make reliably and are prone to working loose.
Hand-cut leg joints
In the simplest design, produced without a lathe, the column of a table is marked out with hexagonal sides using a sliding gauge set to 30 degrees. The column is then tapered using a hand-plane, making each stroke progressively longer than the last until the full length of the column is planed.
The openings of the dovetailed housing joints are sawn by hand in the lower wide end of the column to match the dovetailed keys at the top of each foot. The length of each dovetail housing is developed using a bevel-edged chisel to follow the lines of the saw cuts, finishing with a deep chop into the end grain at the top end.
Router and vice
Taking a more contemporary approach we can use a router and dovetailed cutter to make tapered dovetail housings on the cylindrical column of a round stand. I made one example of this by turning the column from an elm log, concentric with the tree rings.
After turning a straight, flat lower end on the round column, it needs to be marked out to receive the legs. It is then secured in the bench front vice with the spigot on the top end of the column supported on a clamp secured to the bench apron. Having carefully rotated the column so that each pencil mark is level with the vice top, a router is then used to cut each of the flats on the column base.
I made an MDF template with a suitably tapered wide slot to provide the shape for the dovetail housing which I cut with a router and dovetail cutter, using a guidebush to follow the template.
Tripod tables frequently suffered from splayed wobbly legs due to poor joints and wood movement. It is almost inevitable when you joint a thick piece of wood with a thinner one that the difference in movement will create gaps, even if the joints fit well originally.
A sheet of iron beaten thin and nailed to the base was the solution to this problem, but if you make tapered housing joints they should never need this.
As with any historic furniture we can learn with the benefit of hindsight by looking at Shaker work, see what stood up to use and lasted well and what failed or has been replaced and repaired.